Unlike last year’s Surface Headphones, which only worked with Cortana, the Surface Earbuds that Microsoft announced today work with any virtual assistant. That means you can use the Surface Earbuds with Cortana, but also with Alexa, Bixby, Google Assistant, Siri, or any other competitor. We talked to Surface Earbuds product lead Mohammed Samji to find out more about the $249 buds and the Surface Audio app.
Like the Surface Headphones, the Surface Earbuds don’t do anything until you pair them. Surface Earbuds communicate over Bluetooth 5.0 with an Android, iOS, or Windows 10 device. Once paired, you can tap and hold either of the buds to trigger the default assistant on your device. To use a different virtual assistant with the Surface Earbuds, just change the default assistant on the paired device.
“Out of the box, it just works,” Samji said. “On PC, it launches Cortana. On iOS, it will launch Siri, unless you’ve changed it. And I think it might vary depending on the distribution of Android, but all the ones I’ve tested, the first time I do it, Android asks me what I want as my default.”
Surface Earbuds still offer a better experience with Cortana (although without the “Hey Cortana” wakeword), Samji made sure to emphasize. Surface Earbuds can do everything with Cortana that the Surface Headphones can do, like chit-chat, interact with your email, check your calendar, get your daily update, and create to-dos. Samji said his team created a more streamlined flow for all this Cortana functionality. It’s called Surface Audio.
A Surface Audio trademark filing from September 27 was discovered by LetsGoDigital earlier today. The trademark is classified under Class 9, which is reserved for firmware and software. Samji confirmed Surface Audio is the companion app for the Surface Earbuds.
With the Surface Headphones, you need the Cortana app to adjust your settings. With the Surface Earbuds, you’ll need the Surface Audio app. You will be able to download Surface Audio from the Microsoft Store, Google Play, and Apple’s App Store. To be clear, you don’t need Surface Audio to switch your assistant (just swap the default yourself in your OS settings), but the app can handle that for you.
“Everything about this product is about user choice,” Samji added. “If you want to use Android, iOS, or Windows, we support that. But we also want to make sure if you want to use Cortana, we make it super simple.”
Additionally, the Surface Audio app lets you customize settings such as the equalizer, volume, and gestures. Surface Earbuds’ gestures include double tap (go in and out of the call, or play/pause), swipe up and down (control volume), or even swipe forward and back (switch tracks in music, switch slides in PowerPoint). Specifically on Android, there’s also a triple tap to launch Spotify under your phone’s lockscreen — you can triple-tap again to have Spotify to choose another song using its ML.
You’ll also need Surface Audio to update the Surface Earbuds’ firmware. Lastly, Surface Audio includes videos and tutorials, as well as a streamlined setup for Cortana.
Samji emphasized that the Surface Earbuds work out of the box even if you don’t care about assistants and apps. “If you don’t want to use Cortana, you don’t have to use it. If you don’t want the app, you don’t have to have it. It just works.”
Surface Earbuds don’t have a launch date yet — Microsoft said to expect them in time for this holiday season.